Colorado task force rolls out plan to improve juvenile justice system

Sawyer D' Argonne
Summit Daily News
Colorado currently lacks any centralized approach to tracking diversion participation, services and outcomes. Without any meaningful systems for evaluating diversion data, hundreds of juvenile offenders may be doing time unnecessarily.

Substantial changes could be coming to how Colorado handles youth offenders next year.

Last week the Improving Outcomes for Youth Statewide Task Force released a series of recommendations to strengthen the juvenile justice system, increase public safety and develop better outcomes for youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. The recommendations — which are expected to be drafted into bills and introduced in the 2019 legislative session — revolve largely around diverting youth away from incarceration, and establishing research-based standards for eligibility into diversion programs and juvenile probation.

“Putting children in confinement should be a last resort,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper, who created the task force. “These policy recommendations are data-driven, practical proposals that will improve our state’s juvenile justice system. I commend the task force and urge lawmakers to consider these measures in the next legislative session.”

According to the report, published by The Council of State Governments Justice Center after months of research, Colorado currently lacks any centralized approach to tracking diversion participation, services and outcomes. Without any meaningful systems for evaluating diversion data, hundreds of juvenile offenders may be doing time unnecessarily.

Last year almost 70 percent of individuals screened under the Juvenile Detention Screening and Assessment Guide — a guide for determining whether a juvenile should be released or admitted to a detention center, among other potential punishments — were placed under a mandatory hold in a secure detention facility. This happened despite the fact that more than half of the individuals incarcerated were not determined to pose a public safety risk, and 45 percent committed a misdemeanor or lesser offense. In total, more than a third of youth who screened to a level below what would require a secure detention facility ended up in one regardless.

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Perhaps even more disturbing is that the programs Colorado utilizes aren’t necessarily working properly. According to the report almost 30 percent of youth who receive probation as a punishment fail while under supervision, and 35 percent of youth who complete probation have a subsequent case filed within the next three years. Additionally, almost half of individuals discharged from the Division of Youth Services’ custody re-enter the system within two or three years.

In short, the current system isn’t working and incarcerating low-risk juvenile offenders may be doing more harm than good.

“The research shows that children’s minds are still developing until about 25,” said Lisa Hunt, deputy district attorney. “Juveniles don’t always have good tools for decision-making and judgment. We recognize that a lot of times they do something foolish that’s also criminal. Most of the time through having some assistance that’s more informal and not through the courts they can be rehabilitated and not find themselves back in the system. If we can divert them in the juvenile stage then hopefully we will not see them back as adults.”

Hunt said that Summit County already has strong juvenile diversion programs in place. About 90 percent of eligible youth are sent through the programs after risk assessments which include severity of their crime, whether it was their first offense and other risk factors, such as if they’re still in school or not. Juveniles and their guardians can choose whether or not to participate in the program, and some still choose to take their chances in court, said Hunt.

According to a study of the Fifth Judicial District’s juvenile diversion program by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice (fiscal years 2014-17), more than 85 percent of the district’s 145 documentable participants successfully completed their diversion contract. The study also showed that those who complete the diversion program had a recidivism rate of 10.7 percent, lower than the statewide average of 15.9 percent. Perhaps most notable from the report is that participants tended to report higher measures of accountability, community connection, decision-making, future aspirations, self-esteem, and other positive outcomes based on pre- and post-program surveys.

Hunt noted that there are currently about 47 Summit County juveniles on diversion right now, a process that can include community service, counseling, educational classes and more depending on the circumstances. She also said that a different culture in Summit County might also be a factor in fewer offenders being sent to secure detention facilities.

“I don’t think our jurisdiction has the same types of juveniles necessarily,” said Hunt. “We just did a tour of Mount View and Lookout Mountain (youth services centers), where kids are placed often times. We share beds with Jefferson County, and of the 103 beds in Mount View we have four. We haven’t needed them in the past.”

Despite Summit’s relative success in diverting juvenile offenders, further action may be necessary as the rest of the state strives to catch up, and the task force’s recommendations may prove key. Policy recommendations address diversion, detention, supervision and services.

Among the most critical suggestions is the expansion of accessibility to juvenile diversion programs across the state, a process that could include new grants for judicial districts and the development of statewide risk screening tools. Also outlined in the report is a need to develop more clear, statewide, research-based criteria for detention eligibility in order to limit secure detention for youth.

The report highlights the need to adopt a validated risk and needs assessment instrument to help courts measure a juvenile’s risk of reoffending, to establish statewide research-based standards for juvenile probation and to expand the use of kinship care for youth in detention, among other recommendations.

The proposals are being drafted into bills and are expected to be introduced in the 2019 legislative session by Sen. Bob Gardner and Rep. Pete Lee.

“I think the goal of more juvenile intervention is to reduce recidivism, and not have them come back as adults,” added Hunt. “If we’re giving juveniles the tools to be successful adults they’re going to come back as better community members.”

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